Linguistics Colloquia Series

Hitting a point and wiping a region: The argument realization of manner verbs

Beth Levin

Stanford University

Friday, September 8, 2017
3:30 p.m.–5 p.m.

513 Lattimore Hall

Hitting a point and wiping a region: The argument realization of manner verbs

As Fillmore and others have observed, verbs with similar meanings often show characteristic argument realization patterns, that is, shared patterns of morphosyntactic distribution.  This observation has suggested that these patterns follow from common facets of meaning (Fillmore 1971, Levin & Rappaport Hovav 1995, Pinker 1989), attributed largely to the verb's 'root'.  This proposal is challenged by observations that verbs actually are found in a wide variety of syntactic contexts, suggesting that they can simply be inserted into any syntactic context and their roots do not have a 'say' in the matter.  On this approach, unacceptable root-syntactic context combinations are ruled out due to an incompatibility between the two (Acedo-Matellan & Mateu 2013, Borer 2003, Goldberg 1995, Hoekstra 1992, Mateu & Acedo-Matellan 2012).  Such incompatibilities are often explained by appeal to real world knowledge, but details remain to be fleshed out.

I revisit this challenge in the context of recent work on the semantic underpinnings of argument realization.  I acknowledge that the empirical landscape is more complex than studies of argument realization in the '90s assume, but I show that verbs nevertheless display significant semantic class specific distributional patterns.  I take these patterns as a reason to still pursue an account where the verb's root contributes to determining its argument realization options.

First, I review the well-known, systematic asymmetries that involve what have been called manner vs. result verbs, exemplified by hit and break, respectively (Rappaport Hovav & Levin 2010).  Then, I turn to less well-known, but equally systematic asymmetries between two types of manner verbs represented by the verbs hit and wipe.  The break/hit asymmetries have been used to support the proposal that roots come with a grammatically relevant ontological type.  I further argue that some manner roots select for an 'argument' (cf. the 'constant participant' of Levin 1999), and that hit and wipe impose different demands on such an argument.  Informally, wipe requires it to be a 'region' and hit a 'point'.

I propose that the distribution of roots and, hence, verbs, across syntactic contexts is determined by a cluster of interacting factors, including the ontological type of the root.  The diversity of syntactic contexts that many verbs are found in can largely be attributed to the expression of three major types of events of scalar change (Hay, Kennedy & Levin 1999).  Further, as suggested in RH&L (2010), the argument that a scalar change is predicated of must be realized as an object.  As RH&L discuss, this requirement is the source of distributional differences between break vs. hit/wipe.  I argue that further distributional differences reflect the nature of the scalar change involved, especially among the hit/wipe verbs.  I trace the differential syntactic behavior of wipe and hit to the distinct types of 'argument' their roots require, which in turn results in wipe, but not hit, having an object which is a potential incremental theme.  Finally, I consider which facets of world knowledge might further constrain the attested argument realization options from among those that the more 'grammatical' components of the account permit.